David Axelrod knows a thing or two about campaigns. The former journalist turned political strategist is widely credited with helping orchestrate the rise of Barack Obama from a U.S. senator little-known outside of Illinois to a two-term president and cultural icon.
But times have changed, and most talk of culture these days inevitably turns to the wars taking place in state legislatures across the country.
President Joe Biden announced Tuesday he will seek a second term. Citing the key cultural debates playing out nationwide, he suggested that nothing less than the fate of democracy is at stake in the 2024 elections.
The Republican Party responded with an AI-generated ad that depicted a dystopian future in San Francisco. The commercial shows a swarm of people fleeing on foot toward the Golden Gate Bridge because of the city’s “escalating crime and fentanyl crisis.” The ad makes no mention of the fact that Republicans make up less than 7% of registered voters in San Francisco and California is an overwhelmingly blue state.
In an interview Wednesday with The Standard, Axelrod suggested that ad and other attacks on San Francisco are part of a larger Republican playbook that will likely be deployed again between now and November 2024.
“I think cities, in general, are a target for Republicans, and San Francisco is a ripe target,” Axelrod said. “Yes, it's had a lot of problems, but, also, it's a cultural symbol. What did they always say about Nancy Pelosi? ‘A San Francisco liberal.’ So, it's been an epithet for a long time in the sort of culture wars.”
“Around the country, MAGA extremists are lining up to take on those bedrock freedoms,” Biden said. “Cutting Social Security that you’ve paid for your entire life while cutting taxes for the very wealthy. Dictating what health care decisions women can make. Banning books and telling people who they can love.”
In a panel discussion Wednesday at the 2024 Campaign Journalism Conference, hosted by the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics, Axelrod addressed the nation’s increasingly volatile culture wars with Reince Priebus and Tom Perez, the former chairs of the national Republican and Democratic parties, respectively.
“When [Biden] ran four years ago, he talked about a battle for the soul of our nation,” Perez said. “That battle continues.”
However, Priebus noted, taking on the culture war can be a double-edged sword for Republicans.
“Cultural issues are going to be on the ballot, and I think it's going to be important in swing battleground states. But they cut both ways,” Priebus said. “I mean, you can see it in suburban economies around parts of Milwaukee and Cleveland and Detroit. On one hand, you might win in some of those areas with suburban women in talking about good girls sports or parental rights in school. You know, I think we're winning on that issue. But then, 'Hey, we're going to go back to an 1849 law that bans abortion, including [in cases of the] life of the mother?' Well, now we've got a problem. So, those things cut both ways. But I don't think they're going anywhere. I think [cultural issues] are going to be a big part of the campaign.”
So far, no prominent Democrats have stepped forward to challenge Biden, while frontrunners for the GOP include former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the latter of whom has made culture wars a centerpiece of his time as governor. He recently signed a law to ban all abortions after six weeks and started a war with Disney, one of the largest and most beloved companies in his state.
Gavin Newsom, a former mayor of San Francisco and the current governor of California, is one of the most notable Democrats to embrace the culture wars. He recently took his family on a tour of the South to aggressively attack DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on issues like women’s reproductive rights and the removal of LGBTQ+ rights.
Unlike Trump, DeSantis has yet to announce he’s running for president, but he has conducted his own listening tours that signal an announcement could be coming, Axelrod said.
Josh Koehn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org